International aid workers are having a tremendously difficult time doing their jobs due to all the travel bans around the world and other quarantine measures. In the face of the coronavirus, however, they are needed more than ever before.
The coronavirus isn’t the only crisis the world is struggling with right now. It’s not even the worst, at least in terms of the direct threat posed to the world’s most vulnerable people. Besides the virus, many people are afraid of dying of hunger or a lack of access to basic necessities.
These are already serious threats on some continents. In many places, social distancing simply isn’t possible, and many people live hand to mouth. If they don’t go to work, they don’t earn money — and they can’t buy food.
Preventative measures to contain COVID-19 are also hampering the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are trying to help those who have fled their homes and people who are starving or ill, especially in developing and emerging countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has complained about supply shortages and the difficulties facing employees who need to travel to African countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) are also looking for ways to get their aid workers and goods to areas where they are needed despite travel restrictions and a lack of available aircraft. Many other NGOs are also warning of shortages of medicine and food.
“The spread of the coronavirus will have serious consequences in many countries around the world, which are now the focus of humanitarian aid and development cooperation,” says Thomas Beckmann, a spokesperson for Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, a Protestant church charity based in Germany. “People in refugee camps, in informal settlements outside megacities or in countries with insufficient health care are defenseless against the consequences of the virus and are in dire need of support.”
‘Unless Everyone Is Safe, No One Is’
In addition, many international aid workers have been forced to leave the countries to which they were assigned in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, some countries could use more help, not less, be it to combat fake news or to ensure their populations are supplied with the most basic necessities. And that’s not to mention the global competition for masks and disinfectants that has unfolded. In some places, there have been reports of urgently needed protective masks that have already been paid for being intercepted before reaching their final destination.
“There’s a very real risk that there won’t be enough left for the poorest countries in the world,” says Gayle Smith. Smith, the president of ONE, a “global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030,” worked as a development policy adviser to former U.S. President Barack Obama and served as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“There is no question that this crisis will be very expensive. But we must invest, not only in our own economy, but in all people and countries. If there is one thing a global pandemic teaches us, it is that none of us are safe unless everyone else on the planet is safe,” Smith said.
On the ground, NGOs are forced to get creative due to shortages of food and staff, restrictions on movement and school closures. What follows are accounts from aid organizations in India, Zambia, Iraq and El Salvador about whether and how they are able to continue their work during the coronavirus crisis:
“The police didn’t pick anyone up, so we rented 25 trucks ourselves and drove the people to their villages.”
Ransingh Parmar works with Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram, an Indian aid organization that receives financial support from the German NGO Welthungerhilfe. Parmar lives in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. His office is located off a highway that leads to Mumbai. New Delhi is more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. The country has around 13,500 known cases of coronavirus. So far, more than 500 people have died.
“I didn’t understand what was going on at first. The government announced a lockdown at the end of March and suddenly there were thousands of people in the streets. Migrant workers who had lost their jobs, and thus their source of income, from one day to the next, wanted to return to their villages on foot.
I saw men and women walking day and night. They had no water or food with them. They carried luggage on their heads and small children in their arms.
We had sent all but four or five of our volunteers home because of the curfew, but we rounded them back up to cook food for the people. The police didn’t pick anyone up, so we rented 25 trucks ourselves and drove the people to their villages. Those who seemed sick were put in quarantine. That was the first week.
Then we heard that the police had closed the borders to neighboring states. There’s a river here that divides three states. Crocodiles live in the waters. But people just waded through to avoid the checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the government has promised to help the poor. They’re supposed to receive money in their accounts, but who’s going to transfer the money? Bank employees aren’t showing up for work because they’re afraid. For us, the most important thing now is to ensure that aid reaches the people.
It’s a challenge. Our employees have permission to go out, but no one else is supposed to leave their house. Outsiders are also prohibited from entering the villages. The question was: How do we protect ourselves and others? We have to leave the rations of free food at the entrances to the villages.
There are no masks available for purchase, and the authorities don’t have any either. We had to think of something. We have a project in which we train women to become tailors. Fifty of them have made 15,000 masks so far. We gave 5,000 to the authorities, the remaining 10,000 are for our volunteers. And we already have requests for thousands more.
There are many problems. Now is the time to be there for one another. Not just us Indians, but the whole world.”
Interview conducted by Laura Höflinger
“We drive through remote places and speak through a megaphone. It’s better than nothing.”
Malama Mwila, 32, has been working for Save the Children in Zambia for two years. The international aid organization has been working to provide children in this southern African country with access to education and food since 1983. More than half of the country’s 16 million inhabitants are under the age of 18 and live in poverty. This is especially true for those living in rural areas. As in many African countries, a disproportionate amount of people here are vulnerable to the coronavirus due to pre-existing conditions and inadequate medical care.
Mwila lives in the capital, Lusaka. For work, he normally travels to many rural villages and cares for the locals. At the moment, he’s mainly helping to organize preventative measures to contain the virus nationwide. So far, Zambia has 48 registered coronavirus infections.
“Much of my work normally consists of being in personal contact with people. For example, I visit schools where we hand out food. I talk to the kids a lot. This is important so that I know what they need and how they’re doing. This isn’t possible at the moment because we want to prevent the virus from spreading.
Sometimes we drive through more remote places in order to educate the people there about COVID-19 and teach them basic preventative measures, like washing their hands and keeping a safe distance. Many people still don’t know what’s going on. We don’t get out of the car and instead speak through a megaphone.
It’s better than nothing, but of course it would be better if we could talk to the people directly. Especially now, when there will be more physical and sexual violence against children in many households. Kids don’t text us when something happens. We only hear about it in personal conversations.
One of the first measures taken by the government was to close the schools and universities. This is a big problem. For one, because many people won’t be able to attend classes. We’re trying to compensate for this with new programs, but it also poses many challenges of its own. Online learning isn’t an option for most of the children. They don’t have their own computers and rarely have access to the internet at home.
This is also a difficult situation for us at the NGO. At the moment, only 10 of our otherwise 40 employees are allowed to be in the office. At home, we often have power failures from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., when you can’t charge a laptop. We’re now working with radio and TV stations that have generators and can broadcast educational programming to provide at least some learning for everyone.
The other part of the problem is that many children are now starving. Some 4.2 million children are no longer going to school, where they would otherwise receive a meal every day. Most of their families can’t replace this important meal at home. They don’t have enough food themselves. We’re currently distributing staple foods like beans and corn, which are still piled up in schools’ storage rooms, in rations to parents.